THE outbreak of Covid-19 has forced a large segment of the workforce around the world to work-from-home (WFH) on a scale never seen before.
The theme continues to hog headlines but as the time comes closer to when high vaccination rates and herd immunity are achieved, many companies are grappling with what strategy to embark on post-pandemic.
On the one hand, most employees are still shuddering at the prospect of returning to their office on the fear of contracting the coronavirus, which still rages on. But is it tenable for WFH to continue and how will it impact productivity and the competitiveness of companies going forward?
In Malaysia, one of the first large companies to address the issue publicly is Malayan Banking Bhd (Maybank), which recently said that it is aiming for a hybrid or blended arrangement, which is a mix of in-office and remote working.
In fact, the hybrid model is one that seems to be the choice of the day, but is it easier said than done to execute that?
Founder and CEO of digital consulting firm Garage Analytics Sdn Bhd Datuk Tharuma Rajah says a couple of things are nudging the hybrid work model as the way forward.
One is that people have realised that they don’t need to commute daily to work and the time saved can be reinvested to raise productivity. And as far as organisations are concerned, the WFH experiment did not entirely disrupt the work culture - essentially values, expectations and practices that guide the action of employees.
“One other positive that has emerged is that there is more trust and empowerment in employees in getting the job done. The downside is many are working longer hours due to the blurring of boundaries, which can create considerable challenges for work-life balance, “ he tells StarBizWeek.
To be sure, the flexi work arrangement is not altogether new in Malaysia with some leeway having been given in the past to expectant mothers or those taking care of kids.
Hot-desking, or non-permanent workspaces for employees who only needed to come to the office periodically, has also been practised by some multinationals and professional firms.
That said, in Asia, including Malaysia, the business culture has generally been traditional, says Tharuma, where a great deal of time goes towards developing rapport with associates and clients such as over a teh tarik or a round of golf and the formality of a handshake to seal a deal.
But as companies and employees continue to adapt to remote working following Covid-19, more companies are now considering the option of making it permanent, according to KPMG.
In a survey titled “Future of HR in the New Reality” conducted in August 2020, 82% of human resource leaders surveyed in Malaysia agreed that it is likely for the workforce to continue working from home while 71% of employees want flexibility to choose where they work.
More recently, KPMG’s 2021 CEO Outlook Pulse Survey revealed that 68% of CEOs in Asia Pacific stated the pandemic has accelerated their progress on the creation of a new workforce model, with human workers augmented by automation and artificial intelligence.
KPMG in Malaysia executive director of people and change advisory Sharmini Ann Jacob says that given the ongoing pandemic, a hybrid working arrangement makes the most sense as it is a mix of WFH and working on-site.
This way, organisations and employees get the “best” of both worlds – interactions in person and virtually, she tells StarBizWeek.
Citing the advisory firm as a case in point, she says that KPMG in the UK recently implemented flexible working schedules for its professionals where they are given the option to work from home during six days of every fortnight. Similar work arrangements are being practised in Malaysia, she reveals.
Elsewhere, online retail giant Amazon announced last month that its corporate and tech employees won’t have to work in offices full time after movement restrictions are lifted. Workers are allowed to work remotely two days a week, and in addition, employees can work remotely from a domestic location for four full weeks each year.
However, experts contend there is no “one size fits all” approach for WFH or the hybrid arrangement. This is because not all organisations will be able to fully transition due to the nature of work and industry they operate in.
“For example, accounting/finance, HR and R&D may be easier to transition to remote working, but other teams such as product development and operations may need more onsite support, and therefore, should consider hybrid approaches,” Sharmini says.
The WFH experiment, however, did come with challenges from disruption to work culture, social engagement, employee-employer interaction and workflow being cited as some.
Pedersen & Partners client partner and head of Asean and board services Reza Ghazali says for the WFH management-employee relationship to succeed, there must be trust and delegation by management and leaders, while honesty and integrity are key traits employees must continue to exhibit.
“However, acceptance, adoption, challenges and shortcomings differ by levels and age group to some extent. This said, acceptance by the older age group (comprising 50 years and above) has surprisingly been good and steady,” he shares when contacted.
If indications from companies like AHB Holdings Bhd are anything to go by, then a transition to the “new normal” seems to be taking shape, albeit gradually.
AHB is involved in the supply of office-related furniture and interior products, and specialised computer furniture.
Its CEO and managing director Yong Yoke Keong tells StarBizWeek that from its engagement with clients, companies are preparing for the safe return of employees. At the same time, there has been an increase in demand for home office furniture, starting with people investing in a comfortable office chair, followed by a table and other furnishings.
He says the company has installed about 35,000 Covid-19 glass panels at workstations of its corporate clients.
More interestingly, on its list of products is a sound-proof home-office transparent cubicle that can be parked anywhere in the house. Yong describes it as a conducive little working space with privacy, while still being connected to the home.
“Companies are obviously looking to get their staff back to the office, but I see trends moving towards a hybrid where you work at home two or three days and return to office for the remaining days,” Yong says.
Productivity a concern
One of the main concerns in discussions on balancing a shift toward a hybrid setting with the value of the physical workplace is whether productivity will be affected.
Reza is of the opinion that it depends to some extent on the culture of each company, an employee’s maturity and discipline, plus whether the company is locally-based or a global one.
From his observation, international companies seem more receptive to continue accepting the WFH concept due to the global nature of their business. As for local companies, he says they are adapting to the concept rather quickly.
With the outbreak of Covid-19 having seen many businesses being shuttered due to movement restrictions, some argue that 2020 should not be a reference year to gauge the success of remote working.
Retaining and widening talent pool
As companies reposition for growth from the pandemic, a hybrid working model can strengthen talent retention and attraction if done successfully, says KPMG’s Sharmini.
Besides potentially having access to wider talent pools who can be engaged remotely, she adds that flexibility in work arrangements appeals to the younger generations of Gen Y and Gen Z, who rarely stay with the same company long unlike previous generations.
Pedersen & Partners’ Reza believes that “in this day and age and under the extraordinary circumstances, the leadership style of control is over with trust and delegation with accountability and results being the preferred norm, especially with new generations”.
More urgently, with Covid-19 having reshaped the business world comes the need to upskill and reskill employees, say experts.
The KPMG’s survey done in August last year revealed that 13% of the workforce will be made redundant in the next one to two years, while 47% (of the workforce) needs to be reskilled or upskilled towards a new reality due to the impact of Covid-19.
“The business environment is going digital, a push accelerated by the pandemic. Five years from now, we may be writing a new narrative and organisations have to prepare for that now,” says Tharuma, who envisages more freelancers as the pandemic catalyses a shift in working.